Inverting the Distraction of Social Media

There are plenty of articles out there that rail against social media. The trouble is not that they’re inaccurate–most hold valid points. It’s that they’re often a laundry list of complaints without any real takeaways, other than “social media sucks” or “regulate Facebook.” At best, you get a call for moderation. 

A more effective approach is to invert the problem. How does the ever-present distraction that is social media present an advantage for you?

Most people aren’t going to dedicate their time to reading, writing, creating, training, or reflecting. Each of these are difficult things to do. It’s much easier to turn to Snapchat or Instagram as a crutch to waste away the hours. 

If you train yourself to do the difficult work that others avoid and ignore the distractions that others can’t resist, you put yourself years ahead. 

But this requires mental toughness and an ability to suffer. Most people panic at the first sign of discomfort. You’re sacrificing immediate for delayed gratification. If you’re able to master this impulse and embrace discomfort, you provide yourself more opportunities for growth. 

We distinguished the excellent man from the common man by saying that the former is one who makes great demands on himself, and the latter the one who makes no demands on himself…
— José Ortega y Gasset

In the age of distraction, there’s no greater differentiator than establishing yourself as a stalwart of focus and creativity. 

This comes from allowing yourself to sit with something, even if it means getting stuck. Nail Gaiman, author, uses a similar technique when he sits down to write. He gives himself permission to either write or do nothing. But everything else is off the table. Sooner or later, staring off into the distance gets boring and the only alternative is to write. 

In many ways, distractions are a training ground. Social media is just the latest culprit. If you’re able to resist the easy thing within reach and focus instead on the more challenging task, that translates across every aspect of your life. 

Most people think they can wait around for the big moments to turn it on. But if you don’t cultivate ‘turning it on’ as a way of life in the little moments – and there are hundreds of times more little moments than big – then there’s no chance in the big moments.
— Josh Waitzkin

You can either complain about the distraction that is social media or you can use that energy to turn in to your advantage. And it’s a tremendous advantage for those able to ignore the noise and create more

Are you going to sit down and do the work? Or are you going to be a sucker for another quick hit of empty recognition that comes from someone mindlessly scrolling through their feed and tapping on your status? 

Let other people wander towards distraction. Social media should be just another test to hone your focus and practice tuning out the noise. 

The more time you spend creating, the more fulfilled you are going to be. History belongs to those able to overcome the incessant distractions of their time. 

More Action, Less Talk

In May of 2009, I was finishing up my sophomore year at Indiana University. Without an internship lined up, I decided to dedicate most of the summer to writing and recording music. That was my path towards perceived significance and I had an ego to match it. 

When one of my friends signed up to lead music at a summer camp in Northern Minnesota for the entire month of June, it was an easy decision to tag along. I used it as an excuse to get away from home and focus on music. I also knew a handful of other people volunteering. One of the camp leaders, Jon, was a mentor and close friend. 

Before leaving for the trip, Jon and I met for lunch. We talked about how excited we were to spend a month together in Minnesota. He also mentioned how he couldn’t wait to hear the music each night. But he had one recommendation, “Keep it quiet…don’t walk around promoting how you’re a musician to other volunteers or campers. Just let people find out for themselves.”

It’s easy to glance over this at a surface level. But it was a profound lesson for a twenty-year-old, self-assured musician. This was the first lesson I learned in navigating ego. And it’s one I’ve continued to visit on an almost daily basis since.

More action, less talk.

With close to a decade more experience in life, Jon saw straight through my shit. But the way he approached it is what made the difference. He could have shrugged me off as an “idiot teenager” or come down with sharp criticism, causing me to shut down. Instead, he led an open conversation and explained one of life’s most important lessons–especially for those doing creative work. 

When you reveal less up front and people discover something interesting about you later on, it builds intrigue. You demand far greater respect than if you volunteered that same information unsolicited. It also adds a layer of depth and authenticity that draws people in.

I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue, than why I have one.
— Cato the Elder

Action outweighs talk. This approach lends you far more credibility. Those who self-promote and overshare at every chance lose the force behind their voice. It becomes noise, lost to the wind.

People don’t need to know everything about you. In an era that’s obsessed with social media and vulnerability, it might seem counterintuitive. But the less you talk about yourself and the less you reveal up front, the more it draws people in. 

The world gravitates towards depth. Not shallow plays at status and virtue signaling.

Silence is a form of absence and withdrawal that draws attention; it spells self-control and power.
— Robert Greene

This is not to say that you should become a hermit and refuse to reveal anything about yourself in conversation. But it is to say that you should use discretion. If you’re able to refrain from oversharing, you provide yourself an opportunity to get beyond your ego. This allows you to actually listen to the person in front of you or shift your focus towards the work that matters.

Live by your principles, not by status. 

Meaningful progress and satisfaction come from deep work and realizing your own potential. In my case, it came from the music itself. And now it comes from quiet moments of writing. It’s the creative process that keeps me going. And I know I can sustain that indefinitely. It’s independent of the fleeting highs of recognition.

Pursue the things you love, create meaningful work, and let people find out on their own terms. Whatever you have to say will be far more effective when you’re not using brute force to get your message across. 

The further you can distance yourself from your ego or your obsession with personal brand, the greater respect you’ll demand. More action, less talk. Reveal your depth little by little. That’s how you draw people in, build lasting relationships, and create something that strikes a deeper chord in others. 

And for God’s sake, please don’t walk around telling people you’re a singer-songwriter.

Indecision in Product: How to Avoid Becoming a Bottleneck

A few years ago, comedian Aziz Ansari released a Netflix special called “Live at Madison Square Garden”. During his set, he joked about the effort required to buy a new toothbrush. Not just any toothbrush would do, he had to have the best. He researched for hours, Googling “best toothbrush” and reading articles on the pros and cons of bristle strength. As he reflected, he questioned his indecisiveness and his desire to have the best when any toothbrush would have done the job.

For most of my twenties, I did the same thing. I researched every purchase – headphones, winter jackets, coffee grinders – in painstaking depth before making a decision. But, as I’ve learned, the quest for a perfect decision often does more harm than good.

Time is far more valuable than a marginally better solution. And if you’re leading product, the sooner you learn this lesson, the better. As a product manager, the worst position you can put yourself in is creating a bottleneck by making slow decisions.

A Case Study in What Not to Do

When I started my career, I joined a team building a web-based patient portal for healthcare providers. At the time, I was unaware “product” even existed. But I was forced to learn the space out of necessity. My first manager, Eric, was a walking case study in how you shouldn’t handle product decisions.

With something as simple as our landing page, Eric went back and forth for months. His opinion fluctuated on a daily basis. Without the autonomy to make decisions, our development team wandered without any real sense of direction or progress.

Each week followed the same pattern. The team would align on the problem, collaborate on ideas, prioritize features to build and test, then have the tables turned on them a few days later. Eric was obsessed with surveying every available option. He operated with the constant fear that we might have missed something better. As a result, we wasted months of time and energy considering alternatives with negligible differences.

And if we were unable to make decisions on something as simple as the landing page, imagine what that did to our product which was heavy on integrations with practice management and electronic health record systems. Not to mention the most important piece–the user experience of patient-facing features.

The lesson: hesitation kills creativity, morale, and momentum.

Be Wrong as Fast as You Can

Leaving your team in limbo without a sense of direction is a far worse position to be in than taking a wrong step. It’s easier to forgive a wrong decision than it is a painstakingly slow decision or the failure to make a decision.

For extraordinary outcomes, seek conviction in your work and build teams that value conviction over consensus.
— Scott Belsky

If you’re wrong, you want to be wrong as fast as possible. Andrew Stanton, director at Pixar, uses a similar model to evaluate decisions on his films. When faced with two hills and you’re unsure which to attack, the best course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you discover it’s the wrong hill, you can always turn around and attack the other. But you will fail for as long as you continue standing still or running in between the hills.

There will be things you miss and ideas you haven’t thought of. But you’re going to learn more by putting yourself and your product out there than you will trying to make the perfect decision each step of the way.

How Reversible Is This Decision?

For many product managers, faster decision making is the most significant improvement you can make. Especially when it comes to the trivial.

While somewhat elementary, the Pareto Principle should be foundational to your decision making. Which solution generates 80% of the value? Forget the other 20%. As Aziz points out in his toothbrush dilemma, perfection requires far more deliberation and research than it’s often worth. If your default position is hesitation – pausing to consider every alternative – you’ll stifle creativity and lose your team along the way.

You can also make immediate improvements by asking yourself a single question, “How reversible is this decision?” Tobi Lütke, Shopify’s founder and CEO, uses a similar strategy by asking himself, “How undoable is this decision?” Decisions that are reversible – most of the ones you make on a daily basis – deserve quick answers.

Better yet, if you have other product managers, developers, or designers coming to you with trivial decisions, empower them to make the call. Performance will improve when there’s a greater degree of autonomy and teams have more creative control over the product.

The decisions that aren’t easily reversible are the rare ones that Lütke spends his time deliberating before coming to a decision. In 2008, he had to decide whether Shopify would remain the lifestyle business he set out to build or shift towards a growth company. With venture capital implications, it warranted thoughtful consideration.[1]

Slow, deliberate decision-making can be a significant advantage in avoiding massive mistakes. But the reality is that most decisions you have to make on a daily basis aren’t permanent in nature. There’s a time and place to use this level of deep thought and consideration. Not when it comes to buying a toothbrush or choosing between two styles on a landing page.

Far too many product managers are focused on perfection from day one – an impossible task. Instead, with proper context, you should focus on making faster decisions. You’ll always be able to adapt along the way as you learn.

If you want to avoid becoming a bottleneck, just keep things moving forward. You’ll be better for it, your team will be more engaged, and you’ll be able to build better products. Decisions lead to progress because they improve the rate at which you learn.

Both life and product become much easier when toothbrush decisions aren’t monumental efforts. Learn to value your time over a marginally better solution. People appreciate decisiveness. And above all, that’s the sign of a true leader in product.



[1] Lütke still felt like he was far too slow in coming to this decision (lifestyle vs growth). To help speed up bigger decisions, he now tries to get as far ahead as he can in terms of vision and where the company is heading. In other words, being less reactive to inevitable, significant decisions that need to be made.

*This article was originally featured on Mind the Product

The Power of Your Early Influences

Many of us are embarrassed by our early influences. No one admits to how much they loved listening to Matchbox Twenty, watching Spielberg films, or reading The Hunger Games. Everyone’s too worried about promoting how refined their tastes are.

But underneath all that virtue signaling, the truth is that your early influences were foundational to many of the things you find inspiration in today. They’re the branches who first led you to the mediums and ideas that resonate strongest with you.

One of the most important influences of my early twenties was author Tim Ferriss (and he continues to be to this day). But because of how many people he’s reached–also known as success–he has his haters. While an aversion to the mainstream might be inherent to high-brow culture, it’s ridiculous to think you’re above your early influences. Without Ferriss, I wouldn’t have discovered eighty percent of the most influential books I’ve read in recent years.

The Branches: Tim Ferriss led me to Derek Sivers, who led me to Nassim Taleb and Stoicism, which led me to Ryan Holiday, who led me to Robert Greene. These are the authors, entrepreneurs, and philosophers who have had the most profound influence in my life over the past ten years. 

Foundational influences matter because they connect us with more specific interests and allow us to explore those in greater depth. For me, Ferriss is brilliant in orchestrating these connections.

The same concept holds true for influences in any other area of interest or field of study. Those who first peaked your curiosity–regardless of reason–helped lay the groundwork for where you are today. If you trace the past decade of your deepest interests, you’ll start to see a map similar to the one above. 

If you’re too worried about virtue signaling and showing off your refined tastes, you’re not only missing the point, you’re actively discouraging others. 

It’s important to allow your tastes to evolve, but don’t dismiss someone who’s just starting out. Allow them the an opportunity to explore on their own without telling them what they should care about. 

Investor and entrepreneur, Naval Ravikant, offers advice for early readers that’s applicable across disciplines, “Read what you love, until you love to read.” People who love to read and dig into books on complex ideas started by reading simpler subjects that resonated with them years earlier. 

You begin based on where you are today and what your natural interests are. Otherwise you don’t learn to love reading (or music, film, sports, finance, international business, teaching, technology). And if you don’t develop a love for reading itself, you’re never going to make it from R.L Stine’s Goosebumps to Nassim Taleb’s Incerto

If you’re too busy feigning interest in what you’re supposed to care about, instead of what you actually enjoy, you’ll kill your natural curiosity trying to keep up with the connoisseurs. 

Your early influences, based on your unique interests, are the ones who help build your latticework of mental models and network of influences. From here you can begin branching out to connect different ideas, authors, concepts, and styles.

Embrace your early influences. The only thing that matters is what resonates with you at this point in your life and what you find inspiration in. It’s okay to listen to a catchy pop song or read a pop-fiction title just because you enjoy it. That’s reason enough. Let the foundation lead the way.

Why the Worst Product Managers Expect the Best

With each product I’ve built, things rarely come together exactly as planned. But it’s not the inconveniences, technical challenges, or misguided people that are the problem. It’s that we ever allow them to catch us off guard in the first place.

Anyone can operate under ideal conditions. But ideal conditions are the exception, not the rule. Eighty percent of your time building product will take place in a maelstrom of ambiguity and obstacles.

It’s naive to expect that the world should bend to your favor and promote ideal conditions. Most reasonable people acknowledge this. But when it comes down to it, many of us cling to expectations that our work should progress without pushback and our lives should follow a neatly charted map. We forget how much of life is negotiating egos and hidden variables along the way. 

The best teams embrace imperfections beyond their control and create great products anyway.

The worst teams self-destruct because they’re too busy obsessing over inconveniences. 

It’s easy to pick out the product teams who struggle with this. Each challenge appears to catch them off guard, demoralizing the team and throwing people into a state of anger or despair. This type of reaction points to two things: inexperience and fragility.

Improvement comes from experience and perspective–you’re prepared to face a wider range of potential scenarios. In turn, this allows you to develop a deeper well of resilience and resourcefulness.

Creativity and resilience

At age 23, I started working for a healthcare startup, building out a web-based patient portal. Each setback caught me off guard because I expected things to just work–a laughable statement for anyone who has worked in technology for more than a week. When I went on-site for the launch with our first big client, I was unable to anticipate the ways I was about to get torched. 

There were technical challenges inherent to a complex healthcare organization and integrations with its existing software that we had to sort through. But the technical challenges were only half of it. The true test was handling stakeholders–internal and external–as well as the people who create noise and thrive on passive-aggressive emails.

Anyone who has worked in product is familiar with these challenges. There’s nothing unique about them. But I struggled to adapt because my expectations were off base. I lacked perspective. I was focused on perfection in our product and people pleasing–both impossible tasks–rather than creativity and resilience. 

The best product managers are able to cycle through dozens of permutations and anticipate certain situations through dimensional thinking. But no matter how good you are, at some point you’ll get hit by something you didn’t see coming. Whether the feature you’ve been working on breaks or a “senior leader” steps in and changes the rules at the last minute, you will encounter situations that test your limits. 

Your job isn’t to prevent these mistakes or eliminate every obstacle. Rather it’s to develop the ability to continue moving forward when the inevitable occurs. Leading product requires that you establish an unwavering sense of perspective and imbue this quality in your team. Then, and only then, can you build the resilience and resourcefulness to adapt, imagine creative solutions, and bring them to life. 

Resilient teams who cause a few more quality issues will always beat out fragile teams who are only able to operate under perfect conditions. The difference is self-awareness and being able to step back to put things in perspective. This means assuming responsibility instead of feeling sorry for yourself because something you built didn’t work or someone criticized you. 

This is not to say that you shouldn’t focus on promoting favorable conditions. You can’t create a complete shit storm for yourself and hope to come out better for it. But you should also understand that you’re never going to get ideal conditions. There are going to be things beyond your control. And that’s what keeps life interesting–the challenges and obstacles you have to learn how to overcome along the way.

Each team meeting, one-on-one, and retrospective is an opportunity to develop these qualities in your team. By challenging each other to maintain perspective and reflect on experiences, you can turn things back to what’s within your control–your attitude, the effort you put into your work, and the guiding principle that propels you forward.

Opportunities for reflection

In my experience, few things are more valuable to the morale and resilience of a team than holding retrospectives every few weeks. These are best done with your immediate team (keep things small so everyone can have their voice heard) in a low-stress environment, outside of work. There are multiple formats, but each person should have a chance to discuss what’s gone well and what hasn’t. 

This provides a valuable outlet for everyone to air their frustrations, without judgment or repercussions, and remind each other of recent accomplishments. It also allows the team to come together and consider how you might frame challenges in a more productive light and course correct the things within your control.

Retrospectives are just one outlet to discuss experiences and rediscover perspective. And with the right perspective, you can begin building the resilience to navigate the conflict and uncertainty inherent to challenging work. 

Creating more opportunities for reflection is the best way to harness experience and build perspective. It’s the first step towards realizing that imperfect conditions are where the majority of life takes place. Knowing this, you’ll be able to lead better teams, build better products, and live a better life. 

Expect challenges. Expect unknowns. Expect ego. When you set your expectations accordingly, you’ll waste less time consumed by the things that have happened to you. 

Anyone can operate under ideal conditions. But the best product teams don’t sit around waiting for the stars to align. Instead, they embrace the imperfections inherent to life, create their own momentum, and make things happen for them. To steal a line from Charles Bukowski, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”



*This article was originally featured on Mind the Product.

Why Your First Bet Is Always Wrong

Why Your First Bet Is Always Wrong

Far too often we fixate on optimizing the first idea we come across. We become emotionally attached to a single design, storyline, or hypothesis. The end result is a slow crawl towards incremental improvement. Our work becomes a shell of how good it could be if it were allowed to evolve.

The 5 Best Books to Help You Create More

Perennial Seller – Ryan Holiday

A useful starting place to understand the entire creative journey–from sitting down to create, through positioning, marketing, and building a platform. Holiday pulls dozens of examples from creative minds throughout history to uncover tactics and best practices. But the underlying strategy consistent throughout the book can be summed up as playing the long game. If you want to create something of lasting value, there are no shortcuts or paths to immediate gratification. Dedicate yourself to your creative process and put in the work.

To create something is a daring, beautiful act. The architect, the author, the artist–are all building something where nothing was before.
— Ryan Holiday

Grit – Angela Duckworth

In any creative endeavor, you’ll need both direction and determination–what Duckworth defines as “grit”– if you want to make meaningful progress. The book emphasizes the importance of deliberate practice, purpose, and stamina over intensity. The best thing about Duckworth’s writing is that she makes it real. It’s not about a magical experience that leads you to your passion, purpose, or life’s work. Instead, this comes through a discovery period–often messy, serendipitous, and inefficient–followed by years of refinement, and a lifetime of deepening.

Passion for your work is a little bit discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.
— Angela Duckworth

Atomic Habits – James Clear

Once you have a sense of direction, you need to build the creative habits to put things into action. The concept behind Atomic Habits is that by stacking tiny habits over time you can achieve compounding, remarkable results. Your creative results, as Clear suggests, are the lagging measure of your habits. He offers great insight into nonlinear growth (breakthrough moments), identity, discipline, and environmental design. The importance of building better systems is hard to overvalue. There’s room for everyone to improve in this capacity, and if nothing else it’s a refreshing reminder: “Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?"

It is only by making the fundamentals in life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity.
— James Clear

Creativity, Inc. – Ed Catmull

One of the best modern examples of the impact that comes from harnessing creativity and building a culture where the creative process can thrive. Catmull discusses the evolution of Pixar Animation, including the philosophies and strategies that have established them as creative force. Most notably, the team at Pixar embraces the years of ambiguity inherent to the creative process as a story evolves into its own. Instead of becoming attached to a single storyline or character, they seek out a deep truth at the core of the film–the guiding principle–and craft the story around that. Catmull also emphasizes the role of leadership in cultivating creativity. It starts with loosening your grip, accepting risk, trusting your people, and giving them space to do what they do best.

There is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.”
— Ed Catmull

Leonardo da Vinci – Walter Isaacson

Throughout history there have been more profound, practical thinkers than Leonardo. But there’s never been anyone as creative as he was across so many different fields–art, science, engineering, technology, the humanities. If you’re hoping to improve your own creativity, you can do worse than studying the life and work of the person who became history’s archetype of the Renaissance Man. The depth of his curiosity and imagination are something to behold. What makes Leonardo such a powerful influence is that he was relatable and not some distant, untouchable figure. His creative genius was self-made, built from personal experience, experiments, and dedication to his craft.

Be open to mystery. Not everything needs sharp lines.
— Walter Isaacson

And One More…

If five books isn’t enough, check out Mastery by Robert Greene. It’s a comprehensive guide to living a creative life, and one of my favorites. Greene starts with the essentials–discovering your art and immersing yourself in the mindset of an apprentice–and tracks the journey through building creative strategies and, ultimately, mastery.

How the Stoics Mastered the Art of Influence

Desire for influence is human nature. Many people allow this to dictate the course of their lives, often unaware. But the Stoic philosophers developed a deeper sense of awareness and took the opposite approach.

Influence wasn’t their end goal. They approached it with indifference and chalked it up to fortune–nice to have but nonessential. Instead, they offered a more effective strategy–seek meaning over influence.

If you focus on work that matters to you and discover significance in yourself, you put yourself in a position to build something that strikes a deeper chord with others.

Find significance within yourself. Within your own sphere of power–that is where you have the greatest consequence.
— Epictetus

But if influence acts as your guiding principle, you dull your sense of authenticity and depth. You might get lucky and hit the target a few times. But you’ll always be guessing. And it’s difficult to sustain when you’re creating from outside of yourself and dependent on things beyond your control.

It’s a dangerous game to tie your sense of meaning and self-worth to external conditions. You introduce dependencies that can drop you into a state of anxiety, envy or despair, without warning.

Sooner or later your voice begins to waiver. By allowing influence to dictate your decisions, you compromise the quality of your work and your character. And how much good can you do if you sacrifice your integrity and a sense of meaning in your work along the way?

What you’re building must first resonate with you before you can expect it to resonate with anyone else.

But if you lose your honor in striving for greater (perceived) significance, you become useless.
— Epictetus

People gravitate towards those who have discovered a deeper sense of meaning in their work. That’s why the Stoics remain relevant to this day. They created from a place of meaning and valued their internal compass over recognition.

When you seek meaning over influence, you add an unusual depth to your voice that draws people in.

Epictetus, Marcus, and Seneca knew this well. They channeled their own sense of authenticity into their work and they way they lived their lives.

As their influence grew, they leveraged it to contribute something worthwhile. But they weren’t dependent on it. Despite the obstacles faced and privileges afforded, they remained focused on what was within their realm of control–living a meaningful life to the best of their ability.

Meaning starts with something that’s all your own. By prioritizing meaning over influence, you build the courage to speak from a place that resonates with you.

You would be foolish to ignore your audience entirely. But that’s a secondary consideration because there’s no guarantee. You’re the one who has to live with the work you put out into the world and the way you live your life.

Influence is far more likely to follow if you build something you believe in.

Keep your principles in order. When influence tilts your way, you’ll be prepared to lead with a steady hand like a Stoic. You’ll position yourself as the antithesis of the paranoid, corrupt leaders scattered throughout history.

But if you fail to assign things their proper value, you’ll risk losing yourself to an obsession with influence and power.

Focus instead on the things that are your own and create from there. There’s more fulfillment in this work and it often leads to better outcomes.

When you focus on your own authenticity, there’s a far greater chance it will resonate and make a measurable difference in someone else’s life. And even if it doesn’t, it remains valuable because it meant something to you. There’s a fundamental beauty in that.

Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous...Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by contempt?
— Marcus Aurelius

It’s a rare thing in this world to first seek significance in yourself and build the courage to create something that resonates with you. Trust yourself. The world is drawn to authenticity.

When you value meaning over influence you’ll achieve a state of relaxed concentration to do the work that matters. The work you find meaning in. And it’s through this work that you build character and a sense of authenticity.

Seek meaning first, authenticity and influence will follow.
Seek influence first and you’ll risk losing yourself along the way.

*My original post appeared on Daily Stoic – a great resource for all things Stoicism. Check out their daily email for thought-provoking morning meditations.

9 Tactics to Help You Create More, Consume Less

When it comes to remarkable leaders, artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, each individual has their own set of principles. But there is one underlying strategy that remains constant, revealing itself in different shades across each person–creating more and consuming less.

It’s through the work you put out into the world and the way you live your life that you build a sense of meaning. Smart creatives understand this in a deep way. By creating more, you claim a larger part of yourself.

Strategies like this help build energy, establish your identity, and inform the tactics you put in place. While it takes shape in different mediums, the overall strategy is to create more and consume less. It’s the mental framework which informs smaller decisions throughout the day.

Tactics are the individual pieces that comprise the larger whole. They differ in that they require an initial investment up front. It’s what you dedicate time and energy to on a daily basis to reinforce your strategy.

Author and habit expert, James Clear, explains habits as the individual votes you cast each day for a certain identity. The same concept applies here. Tactics are the individual votes you cast each day for a certain strategy. If your strategy is to create more and consume less, you need tactics to help encourage both.

1) Make it difficult to do the easy thing (consuming)

Adding resistance can be a powerful tactic. You want to make it harder to mindlessly consume. If you struggle with Netflix, unplug the television or sign out of your account after each use. If you struggle with social media, change your passwords at the start of each week and sign out of your accounts so you can’t easily access them.

It’s amazing how impactful it can be to move things out of plain sight. Whatever’s undermining your creative energy, add more resistance so you can redirect that towards something you find greater meaning in.

2) Make it easier to do the difficult thing (creating)

This is about environment design. Building something from nothing is difficult enough as is, don’t make it any harder on yourself. Prioritize time and space for your craft to reach a deeper level of focus and creativity.

For years, my place for creativity at home–where I would sit down to write–was a couch that faced the television in my living room. And to further compound the problem, I wasn’t attempting this during quieter hours of the day. It was while people were coming and going, stopping to watch Netflix, sitting down for a meal. There were incessant distractions.

But this past year, I carved out physical space dedicated to writing. I converted one of our bedrooms to a writing studio/library and it’s made a significant difference. I also started writing first thing in the morning while my mind is fresh and I have two quiet hours before work.

Dedicating time and space where you can focus without interruption on your craft will allow you to grow exponentially faster. It’s the first step towards taking yourself and your art seriously.

Make it easier to do the right thing. This doesn’t mean sitting around waiting for ideal conditions or until you’re completely prepared, otherwise you’ll be waiting forever. It means setting yourself up for success through the things you can control in your immediate environment.

3) Pair positive reinforcements

Four years ago, when I first started taking writing seriously, I paired my writing sessions with my favorite coffee shop in Nashville. I walked over in the evenings after work to sit down and write. It’s something I looked forward to every day because of the atmosphere, the music I would listen to and, of course, the caffeine. This reinforcement helped me rediscover writing as a creative outlet.

Now I automatically associate these cues with my creative process. Coffee, coffee shops, and ambient music are shortcuts that jump me into a state of relaxed concentration that I need to do my best writing.

4) Allow yourself to get stuck

At the first sign of boredom or discomfort, most of us instinctively search for distractions and outlets for immediate gratification. And we do so without even recognizing it.

Until recently, the moment I slowed down or felt stuck in my own writing, I coped by jumping between tabs in Chrome–checking email, looking up restaurants for dinner, scrolling through Twitter.

The secret is to allow yourself to get stuck and sit with something. Once I gave myself permission to sit there without looking away, my resilience and creativity improved immediately.

Momentum is easier to come by when you don’t look away at the first challenging moment. Bouncing between distractions won’t result in some magical insight. Give yourself permission to get stuck.

Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process. The pain is a kind of challenge your mind presents–will you learn how to focus and move past the boredom, or like a child will you succumb to the need for immediate pleasure and distraction.
— Robert Greene

For writers: Tools aren’t everything but they can be helpful. I’ve found Ulysses to be one of the best investments I’ve made ($5/month). It helps facilitate each of these first four tactics. Its typewriter mode is fullscreen which makes it easier to focus, harder to jump between distractions (web, email, text messages), and the daily goals feature helps create a strong positive reinforcement.

5) Create a distraction-free phone

For most of us, myself included, our phones are our number one source of distraction. Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky outline the tactic that is a distraction-free phone in their book Focus. It’s one of the most influential tactics I’ve found in the past year. There are three main components:

  1. Delete infinity-pools apps (social media) from your phone

  2. Delete email accounts from your phone

  3. Delete/disable the web browser on your phone

These might sound extreme, but let me explain. Last year I took step one, deleting infinity-pools apps (sources of never-ending streams of content). But the energy I wasted on social media was replaced by checking email, random websites, and Googling everything that crossed my mind.

It was only after I took steps two and three, despite my initial reservations, that I saw a measurable difference in my focus and creativity. There’s now far less clutter and distraction in my day-to-day. As a result, the clarity of my thoughts has improved and I have more opportunities to create.

I recognize this might strike terror in you. But test it out for a week and see how it goes. I no longer reach for my phone as a crutch in moments of boredom. And it taught me how many meaningless things cross my mind and how few emails (zero) require an immediate response.

6) Keep a journal instead

If you cut the time spent on your phone in half and replaced that with journaling, you’d improve your balance between creating and consuming within a matter of days. I leave a journal sitting on the table of whichever room I’m in at home. I jot down ideas as they come to me, intentions in the morning, reflections in the evening, beginnings of articles, and whatever else captures my curiosity.

The act of writing on paper allows you to explore concepts and draw connections in ways that you can’t on a screen. Your ideas take on a different dimension. Not to mention the fact that it eliminates the threat of distractions you face on a phone, tablet, or computer.

But the biggest advantage of journaling is that it helps build awareness. By reflecting, you gain insight into your own behaviors and tendencies, rather than wandering through life on autopilot. If you want to create more and consume less, you have to start by recognizing what you’re doing well and where there’s room to improve.

7) Use art as inspiration

This is not to say that you shouldn’t appreciate other people’s work. But you should use it as inspiration to create something of your own. Actively engage in the things you’re watching, reading, listening to, and consuming. Try to engage, form connections, and draw insights of your own. (Check out my book notes on 70+ titles for an example of how I approach this while reading.)

Use books, films, documentaries, paintings, research, and keynotes as inspiration to create more. If you’re a writer, weave one of the connections you made into your next article. If you’re an entrepreneur, adapt one of the stories to your current project and share it with your team to build stronger engagement.

The goal is to create an active mental landscape that’s alive with hundreds of connections. It directly benefits your creativity and craft when you’re able to combine ideas across disciplines in new and interesting ways.

8) Start small

Don’t go off the deep end and commit to twelve hours of creating each day. You’ll burn yourself out before you ever get started and make it difficult to recover. Instead, begin from a more sustainable place.

If you want to write more music, start with fifteen minutes each day then build from there. That’s how you create momentum. Develop habits that are sustainable and allow them to grow steadily over time.

Remind yourself that growth is nonlinear. Don’t expect immediate results. People tend to overestimate what they can accomplish in the short-term and underestimate what they can accomplish over the course of years. The power of small, calculated decisions and tactics grows exponentially over time. Start small and let compound interest run its course.

9) Find a medium that resonates with you

While every remarkable mind shares some sense of this strategy to create more and consume less, the medium varies. For J.K. Rowling it’s writing, Jay-Z it’s music, Scott Belsky it’s design and technology, Alexander von Humboldt it was exploration and science, Leonardo da Vinci it was art and engineering.

If you need a better starting place, consider the medium that resonates with you. Robert Greene, author of The Laws of Human Nature, suggests reflecting on three areas to help with this:

  1. Inclinations in your earliest years–moments of fascination with certain subject, objects, or activities.

  2. Moments when certain tasks or activities felt natural to you.

  3. Particular forms of intelligence your brain is wired for.

The key is determining what’s meaningful to you and not absorbing what’s important to someone else as your own. Otherwise, you’ll miss the mark.

This is perhaps the most difficult skill of all–sorting through the noise and determining your own sense of authenticity. This requires years of exploration and reflection to determine for yourself. But it’s the only way to sustain a creative mindset and find meaning in your work.


As a rule of thumb, it’s better to lean towards the mentality of a strategist than a tactician. Those who have the patience to expand their perspective of time and the endurance to play the long game put themselves at a significant advantage. There are multiple paths and hundreds of tactics you can use you reach the end goal.

These tactics are meant to help you find your own starting place. Use them to create momentum and discover what works best for you. Experiment and remain flexible. There’s no correct path or proper sequence of decisions. What matters is that the overall strategy to create more and consume less is held in constant focus.

The Philosophy of Remarkable Minds

Each of us has the capacity to face difficult work. In many ways, this defines life. The struggle to create something of our own is where we find meaning.

Our modern era of comfort and convenience can be a double-edged sword. It’s allowed us to eliminate the daily struggle for survival and afforded us the privilege of having this discussion. But when taken to an extreme, it leads to a deep anxiety and restlessness. Emptiness can be a fiercer foe than hardship.

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.
— Sebastian Junger

It’s easy to sit by as a passive consumer and allow someone else to assume the risk. On a surface level, it might even appear that you’re reaping all the benefits. But if you fail to establish a creative outlet where you can build something of your own, you sacrifice your primary source of meaning along with it.

It’s through the work you put out into the world and the way you live that you instill your life with a sense of meaning. By creating more and consuming less you claim a larger part of yourself.

Those who have lived remarkable lives hold this philosophy in constant focus.

Into the Venezuelan Jungle

When Alexander von Humboldt was born in 1769 to a family of wealthy Prussian aristocrats, by all standards of the day, he had it made. His father was an army officer and advisor to King Friedrich Wilhelm II, and his mother was the daughter of a rich manufacturer. If he wanted a comfortable existence, all he had to do was sit back and stay the course.

But despite these advantages, he was anxious and unhappy for most of his early years. His adventurous spirit was never satisfied by the confines of a classroom or the promise of a lucrative career as a civil servant. His dream was to explore the natural world.

As a child, Humboldt was fascinated with the journals of Captain James Cook and his accounts of distant countries and cultures. Humboldt wandered the Berlin countryside to recreate adventures of his own, stuffing his pockets full of plants, rocks, and insects, earning the nickname ‘the little apothecary.’

But after his father died at the age of nine, his financial dependence on his emotionally distant mother allowed her to dictate much of the early, unfulfilling course of his life. Despite his objections, she demanded that he work his way up the ranks of the Prussian administration.

Humboldt found creative ways to channel his deep interest in science, geology, and languages at different universities and academies along the way. He poured over the work of various artists, botanists, explorers, and thinkers. And while each provided inspiration, it was not enough to fill the void he faced for the first twenty-seven years of his life.

Humboldt was torn between the expectations of his family and his insatiable desire to set sail, experience the world firsthand, and contribute something of his own to the scientific community. He lacked an outlet to discover and create in a way that resonated with him. Without this, an emptiness continued to build.

It was only after his mother’s death in 1796 that he felt in control of his own destiny. Longing to escape his tiny corner of the world, he began planning a voyage to South America.

At age thirty, Humboldt set off on the expedition which altered the course of his life. He would explore treacherous landscapes that no scientist had set foot in before. The driving force was his desire to piecing together a more cohesive understanding of the natural world. Most scientists of his day were focused on isolated disciplines. Humboldt was interested in bridging the divide and the interconnected whole.

After arriving in Venezuela, Humboldt trekked for two months across the tropical grasslands of Los Llanos, facing temperatures near 120 degrees Fahrenheit. He followed this with seventy-five days of grueling river travel down the Orinoco, covering 1400 miles to reach the Casiquiare canal–a natural tributary between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. Along the way, he faced torrential rains, incessant mosquitos, the occasional jaguar, and bouts with fevers and dysentery.

This would seem disheartening to most, but Humboldt came alive with boundless energy and enthusiasm during these explorations. No matter the conditions, he insisted on measuring the height of mountains, determining longitude and latitude, taking temperatures of the air and water, making astronomical observations, collecting new species of plants, and documenting it all with detailed notes. Each new environment brought him closer to understanding how the natural world fit together.

The pinnacle of his experience in South America came during a 2,500-mile journey from Cartagena to Lima to explore the Andean Mountains. During this trip, he attempted to summit Chimborazo, an inactive volcano standing at 21,000 feet.

At 15,600 feet, the porters refused to go on. But Humboldt continued his ascent, fighting through freezing conditions, deep fields of snow, and altitude sickness. Without fail, every few hundred feet he stopped and fumbled with freezing hands to set up his instruments to measure temperature, humidity, altitude, and boiling points. He reached 19,286 feet–a world record at the time–before he was forced to turn around due to impassable conditions.

This experience inspired Humboldt to sketch ‘Naturgemälde,’ a depiction of Chimborazo’s cross sections with the distribution of vegetation, temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure according to altitude. Humboldt showed for the first time that nature was a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents. And he presented it in an unprecedented infographic style, allowing those without a scientific background to understand the concept.

Naturgemälde – Alexander von Humboldt’s first depiction of nature as an interconnected whole

Naturgemälde – Alexander von Humboldt’s first depiction of nature as an interconnected whole

Upon his return to Europe, Humboldt’s exploration of South America inspired him to write thousands of letters, essays, publications, and lectures. By making connections and framing nature as a unified whole, his work revolutionized the way we view the natural world. As an interesting aside, he was also the first to observe and describe human-induced climate change.

Humboldt inspired generations of scientists and writers including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. But his greatest contribution was making science more accessible and exciting to a broader audience.

In Berlin, his series of free lectures packed music and university halls with royal family, students, servants, women, and children. He took his audience on a journey that ignited their imagination–combining exact observation with painterly descriptions. He brought distant landscapes to life through poetry, geology, and astronomy, bridging the divide between art and science.

Humboldt continued exploration into his sixties with a 10,000 mile, six-month journey through Russia. He was invigorated by each expedition, showing the same youthful energy and endurance that he had thirty years earlier. He shared his learnings in publications and letters up until his final moments when he died in 1859 at the age of eighty-nine.

The Struggle to Create

Humboldt could have settled into his early existence, lived a comfortable life, and allowed others to assume the risk in their own research and exploration. But this shallow life wasn’t enough for him. Instead, he set out with an insatiable curiosity to better understand the natural world and contribute what he learned along the way.

His adventures were his outlet for creativity, discovery, and meaning. There’s nothing easy about a 2,500-mile trek through the Andes. But the struggle to study and create something that resonated with him at a deeper level brought him to life. Without this, he would have never found his own sense of authenticity and fulfillment.

Creativity is about finding something worth struggling for.

We live in a unique time. Most of us, like Humboldt, could coast through life without facing any significant hardship if we so chose. That’s a wonderful thing. But it collapses into its opposite when we allow our entire lives to be dictated by comfort and immediate gratification. We must not forget the importance of meaning, which is found through the struggle to create something of our own.

Spending the evening watching four episodes of your favorite show on Netflix or scrolling through Instagram might be the path of least resistance, but it’s mostly empty. There’s little opportunity to create meaning of your own. More often than not it’s a distraction that pulls you away from the things that actually matter.

Your unique identifiers are the work you put out into the world and the way you live your life. These are what add depth to your voice. Not the things you consume–fashion, film, food, music, research, sports, technology.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t appreciate other people’s original work. But you should use it as inspiration. It should serve as a catalyst for you to create more and find alignment in your own sense of authenticity. It’s the height of selfishness to expect other people to create meaningful work for your personal benefit without contributing anything of your own.

Creating begins with making yourself an essential part of the process. Not standing by as a passive consumer and allowing someone else to take the risk.

But don’t let anyone fool you, creating is challenging, uncomfortable, and a slow grind. There’s no way around it. That’s why most people fail to sustain the habit. You have to trust your capacity to suffer. But it’s where all the upside is found.

Endurance, Imagination, and Depth

When you prioritize creating something of your own, you give yourself more opportunities for peak experiences and claim a larger part of yourself–just as Humboldt did at the age of twenty-seven when he shifted the course of his life. This is infinitely more satisfying than the temporary highs of a consumer.

By creating more and consuming less, you add an unusual depth to your voice that draws people in. Your creative outlet is where you are able to channel the questions and struggles you’ve faced into something that offers profound insight. And that’s what life is all about.

Whether you forgo a life of privilege to trek through the Venezuelan jungle or you set aside Instagram so you can focus on your art, science, startup, or relationship with the person right in front of you, what matters is that you provide yourself an opportunity to create.

Those who make a measurable difference in the world are inspired to contribute something of their own. Instead of taking the easy route–opting for comfort and immediate gratification–they push themselves further into the unknown.

Human nature has given us remarkable endurance to face difficult work and the imagination to build something from nothing. It’s through this struggle to create that we instill our lives with a sense of meaning.

To find your sense of authenticity and fulfillment, you must fight to create more.

 

*If you want to learn more about Alexander von Humboldt, check out The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. It’s a tremendous read and the source of many details in this article.